Placed in a residential youth facility, Andrew* was full of rage, fear, and sadness. It only got worse after he lost a brother to a drug-related incident.
Having been severely neglected and abused for years, his anger found an outlet in his fists – with the walls, residents, and staff as his punching bags. He was the staff’s biggest challenge during his first six months in the facility – and most wanted him gone.
All that changed, however, when Andrew met Bear, a shepherd/husky mix in the facility’s animal assisted therapy program. While many staffers thought Andrew didn’t deserve to be a part of the psychoeducational dog training program because of his hostile behavior, the treatment director thought being selected to participate might be just the boost Andrew needed.
He was right.
Bear to the rescue
Seven residents met twice a week, two hours at a time, to help train dogs. Bear, paired with Andrew, needed just as much help as the young man. Bear came from a neglectful background and was removed from his home, just as Andrew was. Bear brought something special to the partnership – he was nonjudgmental and loving. He was just the kind of friend Andrew needed at that point in his life.
Like many of his troubled residential peers, Andrew’s prosocial skills were minimal or limited. Working with Bear allowed him to practice the skills he was learning at the treatment facility in a safe environment. As the two of them learned and practiced with each other, their behavior improved. Bear became less fearful; Andrew became more confident and less angry, eventually being named the facility’s Student of the Week.
Giving Andrew purpose and meaning
Larry Brendtro, founder of Reclaiming Youth International, once wrote that “Being treated as a person of value and being able to show concern for others gives life purpose and meaning.” Without the opportunity to give and receive kindness, Brendtro noted, young people remain self-centered and fail to develop empathy.
Empathy can’t be taught, though. It can only be experienced. That’s why asking the young adults in the program to save shelter dogs or help improve the animals’ lives provided opportunities to practice empathy while experiencing responsibility, accountability, and accomplishment. Throw in practicing patience and impulse control, and you can see how these animals also saved their young trainers.
In Andrew’s case, Bear made the young man feel valued and valuable; Andrew reciprocated with kindness and affection.
As noted in our pet therapy terms cheat sheet, animal assisted therapy happens when a professional introduces an animal into a therapeutic situation with the goal of producing specific, measurable outcomes. Andrew’s improved self-esteem, self-control, and social skills show that working with Bear was as therapeutic for Andrew as it was for the dog. It’s a win-win in an environment where there are often significant losses for both people and pets.
How have you seen animals help people in similar ways recently?
*Not his real name